The 2014 Alabama defense could have had HaHa Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri at the safety spots. Theoretically. Both had completed their junior seasons in 2013. No one, though, expected Clinton-Dix to return. He was projected as an NFL first-round draft pick and that’s where he went. It was a bit of a surprise that Sunseri went pro a year early considering he had missed about half of his junior season with a knee injury, but Sunseri, too, was drafted.
The safety position takes another early hit this season. Landon Collins was a junior starter last year, but no one expected him back, and he’s projected as a first round NFL selection. Collins led Alabama’s 2014 Southeastern Conference championship team in tackles (60 primary, 43 assists), tied Cyrus Jones for the lead in interceptions with three, and was second to Jones in passes broken up with seven.
It is the second consecutive year the Tide loses both starting safeties. Collins started 14 games in the Tide’s 12-2 season and Perry started all but one.
In standard defense, Alabama has two safeties, strong and weak (the week usually referred to just as safety, or perhaps free safety). In spring practice and fall camp, Bama practices with its safeties playing left and right, so they are able to play as either a strong safety (against the opposing team’s strong side) or on the weak side. Prior to the start of the season, starting safeties will be designated as one or the other.
Moreover, Alabama safeties have to learn to play the star position, the Tide’s nickel back. That is important, because Bama is far more likely to be in a defense with at least five defensive backs than with four. The Tide had 11 games in which a third safety got the start, five of them by the graduated Williams.
As at other positions, Alabama must rebuild the positions through advancement of back-ups, moving players from another position, and – perhaps most important – recruiting future HaHas and Landons.
Going into the 2015 season, Bama is using all three techniques.
Additionally, the safeties have a new coach in 2015. Mel Tucker came in from the NFL, where he had last been defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. Kirby Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, has moved from coaching safeties to handling the middle linebackers.
Smith, who began his career as a cornerback, started six games last year, usually at the star position. the 6-0, 186-pound senior ranked just behind Perry with 56 total tackles, broke up one pass and caused a fumble.
Jackson, 6-0, 194, emerged as a rising star at cornerback in 2013, but suffered a knee injury in the spring of 2014. Although he was able to come back for last season, by all accounts he had lost a bit of speed. He started all 11 games in which he played and was in on 41 tackles, broke up 7 passes, and had an interception against LSU. Early in the spring he was moved to safety.
Two young safeties are expected to compete for playing time, if not starting jobs.
Hootie Jones, a 6-2, 220-pound upcoming sophomore, got most of his playing time in seven games last year with the special teams. He came to Alabama as the nation’s sixth-ranked safety prospect.
Ronnie Harrison was one of the main topics of conversation with Alabama players during spring practice, and also earned high marks from Tide Coach Nick Saban. Harrison, 6-2, 205, was an early enrollee and able to go through spring practice and turned in an interception in the A-Day Game.
Alabama had one other safety entering spring practice, but true freshman Deionte Thompson spent most of the spring at wide receiver. Bama will add another safety candidate in the fall when true freshman Shawn Burgess-Becker (6-1, 195) arrives from Coconut Creek, Fla.
Jabriel Washington, 5-11, 182, is a senior who has played in 29 games, including getting a start last year against Southern Miss. He is considered most likely to grab the star position.